The demolition of Government House shows how sensitive our State Government is to the city’s history. Old trees and several heritage structures have fallen victim to the craze for building a new Assembly. My comment in this was published in Madras Musings
Last week, the wreckers hammer began bringing down of Government House. Often erroneously called Admiralty House, located inside Government Estate, the building, though structurally sound, was found to be in the way of a master plan for building a new Assembly for the Government of Tamil Nadu. Related casualties were some century old trees and also Gandhi Illam, a museum dedicated to the Father of the Nation. As regulars of Madras Musings would know, Government House was probably one of the oldest buildings surviving in Madras city, discounting the Fort, some temples and churches. It was in the possession of the Madra family, which probably gave the city its name, before the Government of Madras acquired the building in the 1750s as a residence for the Governor. Since then, till 1947, this was the residence of all Governors of Madras Presidency, Guindy’s Raj Bhawan being a country retreat for weekends. Post independence it became the MLA’s Hostel. When the MLAs shifted to the new premises inside the fort, the building was in a derelict condition. In the 1990s, when the DGP Building on the Marina was being renovated, Government House became police headquarters. The police did some restoration while moving in and were very happy with their building. Certain police departments continued functioning from Government House even after the DGP Building was restored.
This writer who visited the site even as the structure was being knocked down could get a feel of the original dimensions of the residence, all the partitions and false ceilings having been removed. The flooring boasted of some of the highest quality marble. The first floor central hall had fine plaster work done on the ceiling and the hall fronting the verandah had a beautiful false ceiling held up in a framework of rosewood that shone as though it had been put up yesterday. The ornamental pillars that rose up to the ceiling were made of rose wood and carried monograms of officials and rulers of the past. At least 10 doorways were made in the finest Dravidian style, each one of them at least 12 ft in height. The ceilings were of the Madras roof type with Burma teak rafters. The staircases had wooden banisters with some outstanding wrought-iron work holding them up. All of these were instances of native craftsmanship, none of which survive today. In bringing down this building, the Government has not demolished a symbol of the British Raj, but the work of thousands of Indian masons, woodcarvers and other artisans. The Government has also shown that despite the few feeble steps it takes to preserve old buildings, fundamentally it does not view built heritage in the city to be worth preserving. That is the reason why a Heritage Act has not been passed and in a few years time, given the pace at which things are moving, the city will have nothing but concrete and glass to show.
The plan for the new Assembly was not presented to the public. The building of an Assembly in the midst of arguably the busiest thoroughfare in the city certainly affects public movement and ought to have been put up for discussion. The silence of the heritage lobby in not taking up this matter is deafening. Probably the movement has run out of steam after successive defeats in the case of the Madras Club and at most a pyrrhic victory in the case of the Bharat Insurance Building. The lack of public outcry about this demolition is lamentable. One of the reasons for the lack of spirit among heritage activists is the absence of a Heritage Act in the city, without which any legal representation really has no spine. The judgement in such cases depends more on the sympathy of the judge and not on any law.
It is still not clear as to why the Government House could not be integrated with the new plan. It is also interesting that Rajaji Hall has been allowed to remain. That building and Government House were part of one integrated whole and one without the other is meaningless. In any other country, these would have been held up as examples of a way of life. Not here in Chennai where every square foot is measured and valued for real estate only.
The German firm of architects, who in their own country would not be allowed to demolish any building even half the age of Government House, should surely have known better. But then a demolition and a larger construction mean more money for everyone. Even the demolition contractor is sure to make good money by selling off the priceless woodwork being removed. Each door it is understood would not be sold for less than Rs 8.00 lakhs.
What emerges from the demolition of every heritage building is the same –
There is every need to protect our heritage.
This cannot be done without a Heritage Act passed by the State Assembly
Without such an Act, no part of our heritage, built or natural is safe
To lose one’s heritage is to cut at one’s roots
The sooner every right thinking citizen of Chennai wakes up to this reality, the better.